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European Neuroscience – and its Discontents – at the 2014 FENS Forum

by Dennis Eckmeier 

From July 5th-9th, the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS, held their biannual meeting in Milan, Italy. FENS represents 42 individual neuroscience societies from 32 countries. Its meeting, the ‘FENSforum’, is the largest meeting of this kind in Europe with ca 7000 attendees.

It is less of a mega-event than the meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) which attracts about 30 000 visitors every year in the USA. But the quality of FENSforum rivals its big brother and a smaller crowd has its merits. The atmosphere was perfect for networking: there was a lot of space at the posters allowing extended discussions. The program was densely packed with the latest research presented in poster sessions and symposia, two great plenary lectures almost daily, and many socials and workshops in the evenings.

Plenary Highlights

Of the plenary lectures I most liked the talk by Dr. Yang Dan, a professor of neurobiology at UC Berkeley and a PI at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), who spoke exclusively about unpublished work on brain state regulation and sleep. Dan and her lab only recently began to investigate in this direction. Speaking about new work rather than summarizing decades of research gave the lecture a feeling of novelty that most plenary lectures lack. Dr. Dan focuses her research on the role of neuromodulators like acetylcholin in the regulation of REM sleep. Next to electrophysiological methods, Dan’s lab uses genetically modified mice to image calcium signals in targeted cell types, or manipulate neurons via photoactivated channels (optogenetics).

A close second was the plenary lecture by Dr. Gilles Laurent, a principal investigator at the Max-Planck Institute in Frankfurt, Germany. His work is fascinating because of the choice of species he studies: the turtle. Reptiles have three-layered cortices that remind former olfaction researcher Laurent of the mammalian piriform cortex.

turtle brain
© 2012 Max Planck Institute for Brain Research – See more at:



The three-layered cortex is supposed to be a primitive version of presumably more advanced cortices such as the human visual cortex which is composed of six layers. Turtles are very visual animals and the Laurent lab studies their visual behavior, and neuronal processing of visual sensory inputs by adapting the latest in vivo and ex-vivo methods to their uncommon subjects. Laurent’s main interest are the algorithms the visual system implements to process images. Future work will also be done on lizards.

Big Questions?

One event, ‘Big Questions in Neuroscience’, a podium discussion with international principal investigators, sounded promising at first. However, the discussion went quite off topic. The questions mainly revolved around the neuroscience community and academic careers rather than the impact of neuroscience on society or the ultimate goals of our field – questions I would consider ‘big’. The participants discussed differences in the scientific culture in Europe, America and Asia and gave advice for early career scientists. Only at the very end a student asked the podium whether neuroscience will challenge the current humanistic view of people as purely rational beings. Sadly, there was little time left to discuss this interesting question which, in my opinion, may indeed one day change society.

As at most neuroscience conferences, basic and medical research were overall well represented. However, I missed the non-medical translational approaches. This lack of translation of neuroscience into technological development at FENSforum surprises.


Europe’s Human Brain Project is geared towards the development of methods to study computational mechanisms of cognition. Among other goals, this project is intended to facilitate the development of bio-inspired computational systems, and one of its targets is the development of a computational model of the human brain. It is funded with 1 Billion Euro and it is Europe’s ‘flagship’ scientific project for the next decade.

However, during the FENSforum, the leadership of the Human Brain Project (HBP) received quite some criticism. An open letter signed by 154 leading European neuroscientists was posted online and garnered a fair amount of attention. Addressing the European Research Council (ERC), the signers stated their concerns about the project’s leadership. The main concern stated in the petition was that the goal of the Human Brain Project would be too narrow. As a result, only very few, mainly computational and software developing laboratories would get half of the budget to work on the so-called ‘core project’. All experimental neuroscientists, however, would compete for the remaining budget dedicated for so called ‘partnering projects’. The scientists threatened to boycott the project if the council doesn’t take their points under serious consideration during an upcoming review round.

The directors of HBP responded later. They agreed that the development of a computational model requires large amounts of experimental data. But, they pointed out, nobody knows yet how much data are already available and how many more are necessary. Thus the HBP directors decided to strongly prioritize the development of a platform to organize the available data rather than generating more data. Experimental research would be funded more strongly in the next step, when the infrastructure is already in place.

Surely the upcoming review of the HBP by the ERC will get a lot of attention, not only by neuroscientists, and not only in Europe.

Dennis Eckmeier is a postdoc at Shea Lab, Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, USA

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